(Editor’s Note: This collaboration between Oklahoma Watch and StateImpact Oklahoma was aided by a grant from The Center For Cooperative Media at Montclair (N.J.) State, supported by the Democracy Fund.)
The phone rang on Feb. 19 and a police dispatcher picked up.
“Oklahoma City 911.”
The caller said her daughter had been beaten and her grandson raped. They had black eyes and bruises. They needed help.
Officer Robert Burton arrived at the home where the woman lives with her daughter and grandson. But he saw no black eyes and no bruises, according to the police report.
The woman’s daughter told Burton that her mother had Alzheimer’s disease and other mental health issues. The allegations were untrue.
Police detained the woman and transported her to St. Anthony Hospital for care.
Oklahoma City police are answering more of these calls than ever before, and the number keeps rising. The department responded to 19,658 mental health calls in 2019, nearly double the number six years earlier, when a new system was implemented to track the calls.
Diminished by state funding cuts, non-emergency mental health care for low-income and uninsured Oklahomans is limited. Advocates say with less available treatment, more people are deteriorating into crisis and leaning on police for help.
If mental illness or substance abuse is identified during the call or by responding officers, they are labeled by police as mental health calls. And those calls are up again in the first half of 2020.
Incident reports offer a glimpse of the types of calls being answered by police and how they respond. Oklahoma Watch and State Impact reviewed Oklahoma City’s mental health reports from one week in February and another week in April.
Few details are included in the reports. Officers do not report every call or contact with someone who has a mental illness, said Capt. Jeffery Pierce, who runs the department’s mental health unit. Reporting is left to the officer’s discretion, he said.
If there is no violation or if the person is not considered a risk to themselves or others, there may not be a report.
Here is a sampling from some of the reports filed earlier this year.
- It was just past noon on Feb. 18, when a man was reported running into traffic near Northwest 23rd Street and North Hudson Avenue. He had entered a nearby business and there was a bomb inside, according to the report. Officer Aaron Layden detained the man who was “out of touch with reality” and seeing things. Layden drove him to St. Anthony Hospital Hospital.
- An 80-year-old veteran told officer Travis Ratcliffe he was ready to die. He lived a good life but he was lonely — his wife died two years earlier. He was in pain — he suffers from diabetes, bipolar disorder and back pain. And he was tired of being taken advantage of in his old age. The man felt hopeless and had not taken his medication in weeks, according to the Feb. 18 report. He told Ratcliffe, who is not trained in crisis intervention, that he knew he shouldn’t feel this way and needed to be transported to the hospital. He was taken to the Veterans Affairs Hospital for treatment.
- A postman called police on Feb. 19 after a man who was naked approached him while he delivered the mail on North Rockwell Avenue. The man told officer Eugene Logan that “my mind told me to take off my clothes,” according to the report. The man told Logan he has paranoid schizophrenia and needed help. He was transported to the Oklahoma County Crisis Intervention Center, a state-funded facility that provides assessments and in-patient care.
- A Bodine Elementary student had a “mental breakdown” at school on Feb. 20, according to the report. His grandmother called police and told Officer Gregory Franklin that the boy had just been released from Cedar Ridge Behavioral Hospital and was taking new medication that wasn’t working. The student was driven to OU Children’s Hospital.
- An employee at Oakwood Springs Hospital called police on Feb. 16 after a man threatened to kill himself during a call with the hospital employee. When officer William Lunow arrived at the man’s apartment, he was smoking outside with his dog. He told Lunow he was “having a bad time since his wife passed away last week” and needed help, the report states. The man told officers the pistol was in his nightstand. The gun, which was loaded, was booked into the department’s property room along with a holster and ammunition. Police took the man to St. Anthony Hospital Hospital, where he was evaluated.
Oklahoma City Mental Health Emergencies Outpace Police Trained To Handle Them
Crisis calls have nearly doubled since 2013. Mental health advocates and law enforcement seek answers that don’t involve police.
- On the evening of Feb. 16, a man called police and said he had been shot in the face. Officer Jonathan Skuta found no injuries on the man when he arrived on the scene. The man is known to receive mental health treatment, according to the report. In the back of the police car, the man said he was seeing a bunch of people including the man that shot him and he was not safe. The man mumbled and rocked back and forth in the back of the car as Skuta drove him to a hospital, which was not named in the report.
- When he arrived Feb. 17, officer Jared Hurst heard yelling on the fourth floor of an apartment building on South Harvey Street. A man was sitting in a chair in his apartment bleeding. Hurst recognized him from previous visits to the apartment. The man had cut himself with a kitchen knife “because the 49ers lost,” according to the report. EMSA arrived to treat the wounds and transported the man to a hospital, which was not named.
- When Officer Jonathan Skuta told a man walking on train tracks to come talk to him, the man ran, but quickly changed his mind and walked back toward Skuta. It was his daughter’s birthday, the man said. He complained about her mother and said he was “going through stuff,” according to the report. He told Skuta he was no longer suicidal but during the drive to Southwest Medical Center the man started beating his head against the plastic divider saying “I can’t take this anymore.” Another officer came to help and police took the man to the hospital.
- A woman called police on April 20 to report that a white car she didn’t recognize had followed her home and was parked in her driveway. The woman in the driver’s seat told officer Jesse McRay she was there to meet a man she met online. The woman told Mcray that her roommate was evil, had replaced her skin with rubber and could now control her arms, according to the report. She called her roommate “the puppet master.” Mcray found several police reports indicating that the woman struggled with mental illness. Officers transported the woman to Midwest Regional Hospital, where the woman tried to leave. Mcray and a male nurse caught the woman and grabbed her arm. They fell to the ground, though the report does not say how, and the two men laid on top of the woman and pinned her right arm behind her back. Mcray handcuffed her and walked her back to her room, where another nurse gave her medication that caused her to fall asleep.
- A man with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia was yelling at people that were not there and beating on his chest, according to an April 19 report. The man’s sister called police earlier in the day and said he had stopped taking his medication and needed help, but officers determined that the man was not a danger to himself or others. She called a second time after he began hitting himself and told police her brother would likely harm himself if he didn’t receive help. Officer Bullard handcuffed the man and transported him to Deaconess Hospital.
- While talking to officers on April 19, a man sat on his living room floor crying. The man had depression and had not taken his medication for months. He told officer Braden Downs that social distancing from COVID-19 had “pushed him over the edge,” according to the report. He was handcuffed and transported to a crisis center.
How to Bring Care to Mental Health Emergencies
These tools, approaches and proposals seek to reduce the risks of police responding to people in mental health crisis while improving outcomes.
- After being tested for COVID-19 and discharged from the hospital, a man called police on April 19 and said he was suicidal. Officers responded to South Lincoln Boulevard, where the man banged his head against a brick wall while talking to police. Officer Andrew Waldon contacted EMSA and notified them of the man’s pending COVID-19 test. The man was transported to St. Anthony Hospital Hospital.
- After 11 p.m. on April 20, officers arrived on Reno Avenue, where a man was lying under a semi-truck with his head propped against the tire. The man said he “had the authority to kill cops and took down The Pentagon,” according to the report. Officer Kassidy Losurdo asked the man to leave the area but he refused several times. Officers took the man into custody and transported him to St. Anthony Hospital.
- A convenience store manager called 911 on April 20 to report that a man had been harassing staff and customers. Officers found the 17-year-old walking along North Meridian Avenue. He was rambling and flailing his arms and legs when officer James Ray detained and searched him. The teenager fell multiple times while being restrained, breaking a taillight during one of the tussles, according to the report. During a record search, officers found that the teenager had been transported to a hospital for mental health issues twice before. They contacted his father and drove him to St. Anthony Hospital.
- On April 21, a mother called for help after her son threatened her and her husband with a kitchen knife and then a screwdriver. The mother told officers that her son, whose age is not recorded in the report, has Asperger’s Syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and did not take his medication that day. Officer Robert Rouner handcuffed her son, placed him in the back seat and drove him to St. Anthony Hospital, where his parents met them.
- A homeless man was dropped off in the parking lot at St. Anthony Healthplex East by police on April 22 and given medication for anxiety. Hospital staff called police to pick him up because he was being discharged and asked to be transported to a shelter. Officer Joshua Pershica drove the man to the City Rescue Mission. Shelter staff called police because they did not have any beds available but the man refused to leave. Pershica transported the man to the Oklahoma County Crisis Intervention Center. Crisis center staff called police again because the man was discharged and refused to leave. The man eventually left the property on his own.
- A woman was transported to the Oklahoma County Crisis Intervention Center on April 25 after her mother told police she assaulted their roommate. When Officer Corey Nooner arrived, the woman was in her bedroom talking to herself. Nooner transported the woman to the crisis center, where a licensed mental health professional evaluated the woman by video chat. It was determined that the woman had drug-induced psychosis. But the center would not admit the woman even though she met the criteria for emergency detention due to COVID-19 protocols, according to the report. The mental health professional told the officer to take the woman to a hospital instead. Nooner, who is trained in crisis intervention, wrote in the report that the center could have admitted the woman but refused. He drove her to St. Anthony Hospital, where the staff was managing COVID-19 traffic outside of the building. The woman was admitted.
- Addicted to drugs, jobless due to COVID-19 and depressed, a homeless man had become suicidal on April 25 when officer Corey Nooner met him on South Agnew Avenue, where he had been staying with a friend, according to the report. Nooner transported the man to the Oklahoma County Crisis Intervention Center, where an evaluation determined that he was not a danger to himself or others. He was given information about mental health services and drug treatment and dropped off at his friends’ home.
- A chair was propped against the back door and a single bullet lay on the coffee table next to family photos when officers arrived at an Edmond home on April 25. The night before, Officer Joshua Blevins responded to a call from a neighbor who reported the man who lived next door had been in their backyard. He was not taken into custody. Now, the resident was convinced someone was in his home. Blevins contacted the man’s wife, a school teacher who had moved out of the house because she was afraid of her husband. He stood next to her with a gun while she was on a video chat with her principal. She told officers that her husband had been using methamphetamine and marijuana. Officers detained and transported the man to St. Anthony Hospital and placed him in a secure holding, according to the report.
Quinton Chandler is a criminal justice reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma. He tells stories about how courts, police, jails and prisons affect everyday Oklahomans. Contact him at 907-299-6693 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @quintonchand.